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As COVID-19 Deaths Rise In Brazil, So Does Bolsonaro's Popularity


And with more than 250,000 people killed, the United States is by far the country with the most number of COVID-19 deaths. Second to the U.S., Brazil. That is according to data from Johns Hopkins. More than 169,000 people in Brazil have died. This could likely come as a surprise, then, to hear that the country's leader, President Jair Bolsonaro, has seen his popularity rise during this pandemic. NPR's Phil Reeves is in Rio de Janeiro this morning. Hi, Phil.


GREENE: So, I mean, we're seeing a devastating spike here in the United States. What does it feel like in Brazil right now?

REEVES: It feels worrying. For a long time, you know, Brazil was stuck on this high plateau. It had more than a thousand deaths a day. And then they dropped off, went down by more than half. And now we're seeing numbers edging up again, particularly in the country's two biggest cities, Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. Here in Rio, where you can - I think I hear an aircraft going overhead.


REEVES: Daily average deaths are up more than 180% on two weeks ago. And occupancy levels in intensive care beds in public hospitals are now at 90%. And there's a report this morning that scientists from a group of top Brazilian universities believe there's pretty conclusive evidence that a second wave has begun right across the country, even though government officials aren't acknowledging that. And these scientists are reportedly blaming a lack of systematic testing and tracing, a lack of coordinated government policy and the fact that the Brazilian public just is following preventative measures less and less.

GREENE: Well, given all of that, I mean, can you talk about why Bolsonaro's popularity just seems to be rising at this point?

REEVES: Well, his message, you know, is that the economy must stay open at all cost. And that really resonates with a lot of Brazilians, especially people who live hand-to-mouth. And there are many millions of them. The pandemic's had a devastating impact on employment numbers here. But there's another much more basic thing, and that is his government has put a lot of money in the pockets of the poor. It's made emergency aid payments to almost 70 million people. That's cost the country tens of billions of dollars. And these payments are, in fact, agreed by Congress. But Bolsonaro's getting the credit, and that's helped push his numbers up.

But, you know, his rise in popularity is quite extraordinary when you consider what he's been doing. I mean, as you know, he's downplayed this virus. He's undermined social distancing, not wearing a mask and diving into crowds. He hasn't expressed much sympathy for victims of COVID-19. Everyone has to die sometime, he says. And the other day, he told Brazilians that they mustn't be a nation of sissies, although he used a homophobic Portuguese term for sissy.

GREENE: Wow. My goodness, does he even recognize the need for a vaccine if that is his overall message?

REEVES: Yes, he does. And he particularly is supporting the vaccine being developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University. His government signed up for several other vaccines that are under trial. But even in that issue, he's been playing politics. He's picked a fight over these vaccines. The governor of Brazil's most populous state, Sao Paulo, is promoting and helping test the Chinese-made vaccine called CoronaVac. And he's already shipped some of it, though it's not approved. He's a big rival of Bolsonaro's and a potential challenger in the presidential election in a couple of years' time. Bolsonaro's railed against this. When his health minister tried to buy some, he canceled the order. And when regulators stopped trials briefly, Bolsonaro called it a personal victory. So like his idol, Donald Trump, he's a populist who thinks China bashing plays to his base.

GREENE: NPR's Phil Reeves for us this morning in Rio.

Phil, thanks as always.

REEVES: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.